I handed my research paper to my professor with a confident grin. I had worked on the paper for days and was confident that it was a masterpiece! Although only in my first year of college, I knew that my professor would be impressed and would likely frame my paper and use it as an example for future students.
Like a child anxiously awaiting Christmas morn, I couldn’t wait to get my graded paper back. On the fateful day, when class was over, he handed them out. Something was terribly wrong. All I could figure was he made a grievous error and inadvertently given me the wrong paper back.
I could tell it was the wrong paper because this one had red marks all over it! I checked the cover sheet for the proper student and there it was—my name! Taken aback and a little embarrassed, I decided not to examine my paper on the spot. I stowed it away and headed home.
Upon arrival, I carefully examined the paper, surprised to find notable errors all throughout. There were misspelled words, wrong punctuation, and poor writing techniques. Some of these were obvious.
Others were new to me. He made notes like, “This is passive language,” “Your verb here is not in agreement,” and “Use a comma in your footnote rather than a period.”
At first, I was taken aback. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I also wondered if I was really cut out for college. But rather than getting bitter, I decided to get better. I accepted the criticism and decided to learn from it. Twenty-five years later, I’m still learning.
A couple of weeks ago, I was telling a friend of an issue, years earlier, where someone was critical toward me on social media. He was surprised and said, “Wow, I never knew you needed such thick skin to be a pastor.” I laughed and said something like, “Pastors need a big heart and tough skin…kind of like a bighearted rhino.”
All of us face some type of criticism from time to time. It’s not unique to any profession or person.
I don’t believe that any of us like to be criticized. Instead, we avoid it. When criticism manifests its ugly head, we bristle up in anger or retreat into isolation—or a combination of both.
Now, to be honest, some people just have the spiritual gift of criticism and were born to fight. They’re not looking for resolution and don’t believe in win/win. They just enjoy fighting.
People who are overly critical generally operate from a heart filled with pain. Their critical spirit helps them feel better about themselves. Sometimes, it’s just best to not invite these people into your life.
But for the most part, most people are not like that. Most people criticize out of love or concern. Over time, I’ve learned to embrace criticism as a gift. I’ve learned a couple of things about criticism over the years.
Within each piece of criticism there is an element of truth.
As a pastor for years, I have the privilege to talk to lots of different people. Everyone has their own opinion that is shaped by their own perspective and environment. But everyone has something to offer. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
If someone says to me, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you…I didn’t like it when you…,” I close my mouth, make solid eye contact, smile, and listen closely. I try to remember that, valid or not, they truly believe what they are saying. Generally, the altercation will fall into three categories.
First, there are times when it was simply a misunderstanding. In these situations, I may have been misquoted, someone just did not hear correctly, or got the wrong impression.
I apologize that they were hurt and that I was not clear enough or gave the wrong impression. I tell them that I appreciate their honesty and the strength that it took to be transparent with their feelings and that I’m glad we could “clear the air.”
Second, there are other times, when I was just wrong. I made the wrong decision or did not think through something and made a mistake. During these times, I confess my error, ask for forgiveness, and tell them I will work on making necessary adjustments.
This is not the time for me to point out their faults. I am only the student. I thank them for confronting me and allowing me the opportunity for growth.
Finally, there are times when I was right in what I did or said, but they just didn’t like it. In these instances, I kindly reiterate my position, offer the necessary evidence for my stance, and apologize that their feelings were hurt.
Although I may feel bad when people are hurt, I will not compromise what I believe to be truth. They’ll have to see my supervisor on that one.
In each case, I strive to learn something. Even in times when I was right, I wonder if I could have been more loving and kind and approached it differently. Oftentimes, the answer is yes. The Bible says, “Speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Love must be the ultimate motivation.
With criticism comes knowledge and growth.
As an Associate Professor of speech, through the years, I have reminded my students that criticism is not a bad word. Criticism, done properly (often called constructive criticism), illuminates our imperfections and allows us to make corrections.
Every single semester, my students are required to do peer evaluations—to point out what their peers did well and could have done better in their speech. They are also responsible to do a personal evaluation where they watch their own speech and offer a personal critique.
Both are extremely painful, but both are essential for growth—kind of like surgery. The knowledge gained from these times of criticism is extremely beneficial for the future. I’ve had many students have that “aha” moment when watching themselves on video.
Experience is the best teacher. As the young protégé asked his mentor, “How do I learn to make good decisions? The teacher replied, “By making lots of bad decisions and learning from them.”
Criticism opens the door for reconciliation.
While it’s true that some people are unkind and prefer to throw rocks on social media while hiding behind a keyboard, criticism, offered for the right reasons, can be an agent for introspection and transformation. The overall goal should be love and harmony. The Bible says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Prov 27:17).
I have a friend who used to say, “Don’t go away mad. Just go away.” As humorous as that appears, anger causes pain and isolation. It’s a lose/lose scenario.
Rather, reconciliation and restoration should be the ultimate goal. The Bible says, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1).
Obviously, none of us are perfect. That’s why God sent Jesus. If you think you are, your issue is simple—pride and arrogance.
If you’d like to know what your imperfections are, ask several friends, “What do you think are my three greatest weaknesses?” Criticism done properly and received properly can be a wonderful gift. It tears down walls and opens the door for growth and reconciliation.
Although it hurt at the time, I’m thankful for that research paper that was full of red marks. It helped me to become a better researcher and writer. It also helped me to become a better professor.
Now, when grading papers, I use constructive criticism, positive reinforcement, specific examples, and, one more thing: I use purple ink.
Dr. Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.